Andrew Lubatty The Avenue Grill 630 East 17th Avenue 303-861-2820 www.avenuegrill.com
Andrew Lubatty can't contain his excitement. The Avenue Grill executive chef is just hours away from boarding a plane and jetting off to Washington, D.C. -- specifically, the White House -- where he's joining eight more Colorado chefs, all of whom were invited to President Barack Obama's palatial estate for the "Chefs Move to Schools" pilot program kickoff, a component of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Campaign to push proper nutrition and abolish childhood obesity.
"It's really an honor to be chosen," says Lubatty, even though the chef admits it's been a long time since his two school-aged children sucked down a school lunch. "My kids have really helped me to understand that the school lunch program needs to be fixed right away -- that it's a high priority," he stresses. "I'm not saying that the cooks have to start cranking out fresh pasta, but at least get them to do foods that aren't fried. The whole point of the pilot program is to get chefs to go into schools and teach the staff to cook better and healthier under tight budget constraints and within their skill levels," explains Lubatty, who also sits on the board of the local chapter of Share Our Strength's Operation Frontline, a nutrition-education nonprofit.
Born in Southampton, New York, the 47-year-old Lubatty has focused on food since he was thirteen, when he got his first gig, as pot scrubber, dishwasher and oyster and clam shucker. "It was an awful job that I did for the low, low price of two bucks an hour," recalls Lubatty, who continued working his way through top kitchens in New York, Arizona and California before moving to Denver in 1995. "I was living and working in Arizona and doing really, really well there," he recalls, "but after another stifling 107-degree day, I just looked at my wife, Robin, and said that we needed to get out, so we moved to Denver."
Despite the fact that they motored to Denver with "nothing lined up -- no job," Lubatty soon found what he was looking for at the Avenue Grill, whose kitchen he's governed for nearly fifteen years. "We've been through a lot together," says Lubatty, who's seen the restaurant undergo numerous changes. "The food was Southwestern when I started -- green chile, fajitas and burritos - and the restaurant was a lot more casual, with a lot of remnants from the '80s," he remembers. But on a trip to San Francisco in 1998, he and the owners decided to retool the space and the concept. "We bopped around a bunch of San Francisco restaurants," Lubatty recalls, "and, at the time, Southwestern food was getting the boot, so we came back to the Grill with a lot of new ideas and started adding new dishes to the menu -- a lot of them with an Asian bent -- and made the dining room a little more formal."
The one constant? The kitchen. "I hear so many chefs complain about how small their kitchens are, but I guarantee you that they haven't seen mine, which is tinier than a shoebox," he insists. "I used to hate it, but now I use it as an excuse to press ahead and challenge myself, a lot like we're going to have to do if we want to make sure that our kids start eating nutritiously at school," says Lubatty, who talks more about his journey to D.C., his fondness for rabbit, his first platter of offal, and customers and their teeth in the following interview.
Six words to describe your food: Italian, Asian, fun, tasty, generous and balanced.
Ten words to describe you: Sensitive, talkative, happy, musical, loyal, easygoing, spontaneous, creative and friendly.
Favorite ingredient: Hawaiian fish. There are so many great varieties -- monchong, opakapaka, moi, ahi, opah, sunfish, swordfish, freshwater shrimp... When it's really fresh, fish is really fun to work with as a chef, because the clean flavors are a canvas for so many possibilities.
Best recent food find: Aji amarillo chile paste from Peru. I really like spicy stuff and have a good friend from Ecuador who keeps giving me packets of the paste. His mother sends it to him from Miami, and he gives me some here and there. It's awesome in ceviche, with chicken or seafood, and has a nice kick and a citrusy finish. In between "shipments," I make some homemade sauce with dried aji chiles I get from the Savory Spice Shop, rehydrate and seed them, then purée the chiles with sautéed onions, garlic, sea salt and olive oil.
Most overrated ingredient: Filet mignon. We have customers who demand it, but I take it as a personal mission to put another steak on the menu and make the presentation and components stand out so that people order the other steak instead. Any fool can cook a filet mignon: The test of a real chef is to get people to enjoy other cuts of beef that have more flavor, and make those cuts of beef appeal to a filet eater.
Most undervalued ingredient: Most people think of soy sauce as an Asian flavor, but it also makes a great secondary flavor that marries well with mustard, Worcestershire sauce, citrus and vinegars. If it's used in harmony with other flavors, it can impart a subtle flavor contribution that's more than just Asian.
Favorite local ingredient: Udi's Bakery makes a marble rye bread that we use for our Reuben sandwich that I really like. The bakery uses natural sourdough starters, great flours and a touch of cocoa in the pumpernickel of the swirl in the dough, which is unique. I appreciate local foods that have identity and add an interesting flavor to my food.
One food you detest: There is no one food I detest, but an offal platter -- liver, beef heart, kidneys, some kind of funky sausage -- at culinary school came really close. And I have to admit, I wouldn't want to be on the Travel Channel eating monkey brains.
One food you can't live without: Pizza. I usually eat it two or three times a week in the car on the way home from work. My cup holders even have chile flakes and napkins in them. I like Little Ricci's in Tamarac Square, Joey's Pizza on East Colfax, Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza and Two-Fisted Mario's.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: A customer called me out to say that he'd found a tooth in his salad. After talking to him for the longest 45 seconds of my life, he stuck his finger in his mouth and said, "Oh, I think I lost a tooth." Really?
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My wife's mother gave me a wooden chopping bowl with a mezzaluna-type cutter that fits in it. That bowl makes the best guacamole, salsa and chilled eggplant caponata -- and it seems to taste better every time I use it.
What's never in your kitchen? Cheap, generic ingredients. Cooking is so much easier when you use quality ingredients and just let the ingredients speak for themselves.
What's always in your kitchen? Risotto, polenta, local goat cheese and olive oil.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: More national recognition for the great chefs and restaurants in town. When I first got here in 1995, there were a handful of restaurants that were really awesome and had a lot of young chefs ready to break out, and it's been fun being a part of the growth and watching the people who I admire and respect turning out some great food. I don't know how long it will take before these restaurants finally start getting more national press. I realize that it's getting better, but I'm still annoyed that it takes so long to get Denver restaurants on the national map.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Another steakhouse that serves a two-pound steak, a baked potato the size of your head and, wow, how about some buttered green vegetables? I like when chefs craft thoughtful plates of food -- not just a bunch of generic sides -- that actually go together. Tyler Wiard at Elway's Cherry Creek is the exception to the rule, because he offers a lot of interesting choices.
Favorite dish on your menu: Sesame-seared ahi tuna with ponzu sauce, wasabi mashed potatoes and a vegetable spring roll. I love the ponzu beurre blanc, and the ginger, soy and star anise really set it off. The wasabi potatoes are great, and the vegetable spring roll is a different option from the usual sautéed vegetables. I also like our Asian-barbecued tempeh; it's really different.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Rabbit. I understand why some people won't eat it, but you know that cow you're cutting up on your plate? Uh, that was an animal, too. I love rabbit pieces fried, like chicken, wrapped in pancetta and simply seared with a good pan sauce or braised.
Weirdest customer request: In Boston, a customer said, "I got no teeth," and then asked me to put a sandwich -- I think it was chicken salad -- in a food processor. That was bizarre. Why not order soup?
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: At culinary school in New York, the students would eat whatever plate would come up from a particular station on the cooks' line. You didn't have a choice, so it was kind of like Russian roulette. One evening, I got an offal platter with liver, kidneys, heart and some kind of gnarly sausage. I was young and didn't have much exposure to offal, and I remember thinking that it would've been one thing to get just one organ in a meal, or as part of a dish, but this was pretty hard-core for me. I think I hit the vending machine that night.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: When I was starting out, I was the boss -- it was my way or the highway. As I grew up, I found out that there's more than one way to get the job done -- that you can still be the boss by empowering people to help. My staff makes me look good because I don't hold them back and they trust me. They always need guidance, but it's nice to see my sous chefs grow up and move on to run their own place. I want them to know that moving on makes me proud, whereas when I was young, I wanted them to stay with me forever.
What's next for you? The White House. When I get back to Denver, I'll be paired with a local school and serve as a consultant to improve the nutritional quality of the National School Lunch Program. This is a huge honor, and I'm lucky to be part of a restaurant that cares about the community and supports me and the charities that are important to me.
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Andrew Lubatty. To read part two, click here.